“I was only following orders…” The Nuremburg trials of Nazi war crimes have made these words infamous. Ok, I committed atrocities, ok, I broke the rules of war, ok, I murdered innocent people, but – I was only following orders.
This week we see what happens when the people of Israel go to war. This is a nation that has suffered together, that somehow believe in a God who has made a covenant with them … and led them into a promised land, flowing with Milk and Honey. The trouble is, that land already belonged to other people. So when they come to cities like Jericho, for instance, they say that’s ours because God gave it to us.
So, these Israelites are sanctioned to commit genocide. They destroy the city and kill everyone, even the women and children … because this was what God wanted. And the only person they did not kill was Rahab – the prostitute. And why did they not kill her? Because she did what Yahweh said, and betrayed her own countrymen!
Ok, the actions of the Israelites were appalling, but it’s alright, because they were only following orders … or were they?
On the surface, it looks very much as though we are reading a simple straightforward set of historical accounts. Only we are not. These histories, like any other historical accounts, have a specific agenda. And the historical documents of Scripture, have been edited over and over again at different stages of history. And… there is one particular era of history in which this account was significantly revised.
The early seventh century, by a King who was writing five hundred years after the event of Jericho’s destruction: the great Reformer – King Josiah. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if King Josiah had read hair, a big bushy beard and a palace at Hampton Court. Like Henry VIII, the great reformer of British history, Josiah had a specific agenda.
After emerging from the shadow of the Assyrian empire, King Josiah needs to consolidate power. The land has been populated with foreigners… there are various strands of belief in Yahweh, and various different shrines around the country. So … what does he need to do? He needs to purify the religion, centralise worship and ensure a good revenue is channelled through the capital in Jerusalem. But … the people of the land will not be at all happy with this! Any more than 16th century Englishmen would have been happy with the dissolution of the monasteries and abbeys. How is poor king Josiah going to justify his reforms?
And then, one day, before the invention of carbon dating, he says “Oh look, look what I found here in the walls of the temple: why, blow me if it isn’t an ancient document of Jewish law – demanding that Israel should be worshipping and living in precisely the way that I have been arguing! Blow me if it says there should be no shrine outside Jerusalem: well, that settles it – whether we like it or not, it will be disobedient to Yahweh not to implement these reforms.
And lo and behold, a big chunk of that “lost” document happens to be about Joshua conquering the city of Jericho! Now, we all know that Joshua is a great archetypal leader for the people of Israel – and it just so happens that Joshua’s intentions, and character, and ruthlessness are precisely the same as those of King Josiah! Wow – isn’t our controversial reforming king, just like the great Joshua! Okay, he may be bloodthirsty and ruthless, but then so was Joshua, and he’s only doing what God told him to do! So .. much as we detest these reforms… we can’t argue, because God has ordained it all!
This after all, is how the promised land came into our hands – by being ruthless. And look at the example of Rahab, betraying her own people! Well – if those in our own towns and cities are resisting Josiah’s reforms, we’d better jolly well hand them over – after all, it’s obedience to Yahweh here and now that makes us Jews, not the blood in our veins or the history of our moral behaviour. Rahab may have been a prostitute who betrayed her friends and family and city, but because she did what this ruthless Yahweh required … God forgave her!
And so … it seems to me that what scripture records for us here, in honest and stark terms, is just how fallible his own people are! Because one of the questions in the text, is a question that could not be edited out! When an angel of the Lord appears to Joshua – Joshua asks him if he is on the side of the Israelites: but the angel says – he is on nobody’s side, but the Lord’s side!
The text, it seems, shows how – easily and readily and enthusiastically, we assume that God is on our side, and how rarely and reluctantly and superficially we ask instead whether we are on his!
For the most part, every empire that has existed – when it sees another country which has a resource it wants and is prepared to invade that country in order to get it, the empire will find a way of denouncing the inhabitants of that country as evil. The Roman empire did it, Coalition forces have done it with the creation of this thing called “an axis of evil” to describe despotic leaders with significant oil reserves, and it happened throughout Scripture.
It happens elsewhere in the world. Look at the Goldstone report outlining Israeli war crimes. Goldstone has now declared that with hindsight, his report would have been different. So of course, there is a now a major propoganda offensive the have the entire report retracted.
Look at the Ivory Coast: hundreds of people dead, millions of people displaced … countrymen fighting against one another in support of different leaders. And both are convinced that they are fighting for what is right!
Or if we look closely into our own lives: How often do we get a bee in our bonnet about a situation, assume that we are in the right, that our view is the correct one. That God is on our side? How could he not be … when these facts are before us.
One of the great things about the series, the Tudors, which I am currently working my way through, is the way that they portray Henry VIII. If you know as little as I do about history, Henry the Eighth is the man who formed the church of England on the basis of his own cod-piece. But … the Henry portrayed here is a proper human. Of course, he is different from all other humans, and believes that he is God’s anointed one – subject only to God himself.
And through the course of his life we see him zigzagging this way and that, each time, desperate to get himself a son and to be happy in his marriage. And each time it doesn’t go his way, he is not sat there rubbing his hands in glee, forming a new and evil scheme to get rid of his enemies or his wives to achieve his political goal! Constantly, he is trying to do the right thing with God, because – whatever else he is, he remains subject to God himself. And yet, for all his agonising and his theological argument, the assumption is always and without question, that God is on his side. If things have not gone Henry’s way – it is simply because Henry has mis-heard or been mistaken. But each time he plots a new scheme – it is assumed that God is on his side.
And really, are any of us any different! No matter what views we might hold today, and how they might be totally different in ten years time, do we not still assume that God is on our side? And if God is on our side, and people get hurt as a result – then it’s not our fault.
I see it with my children. Little boy hits even littler boy. Bigger boy sees, rightly, that medium boy has been naughty. Therefore, he passes judgement, administering his right boot to the backside of medium boy, who after all was in the wrong. But, by administering said boot, it does not occur to bigger boy that justice may no longer be on his side! And it’s tears all round.
And let’s be honest. We never grow out of it! This is human nature. All we can do is learn how to disguise our naughty behaviour, wrapping it ever more cleverly inside arguments about right or wrong, assuming of course, that we are in the right.
How often do you assume that God is on your side? How often do you seriously ask whether you are on his?
The honesty of this violent text from Joshua doesn’t show us a right or wrong way to be. It simply shows us the consequences of assuming that God is on our side. Next week, we’ll see how those consequences worked their way out upon Josiah and his descendents.